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History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel) - Katherine L. French

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History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (2008 Conference Panel)
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Katherine L. French
Ruth Mazo Karras
Pavla Miller
Julia Adams
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Golden ages and the “distant past" in women’s history.

Katherine L. French
(SUNY New Paltz)


In her book History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, Judith Bennett argues that the disappearance of patriarchy from our historical vocabulary and the distant past from historical consciousness stems from the role society assigns to historical narratives. Historians place “new” historical facts in narratives of progress or decline, which are also narratives of change and transformation. However, Bennett asks us to move away from the more exciting concepts of change or transformati on to the more problemat ic issue of continuity. She writes, “If we question apparent transformations in women’s status, consider new periodizations based on women’s histories, and feel comfortable thinking about long-term continuities, we can see women’s history in new ways” (71). As Bennett points out, narratives are implicit to history and historiography, and the arc of women’s history narratives are getting shorter and shorter, with the bulk of women’s history journals and women’s history conferences and history conferences more broadly devoted to the period since 1800 (30-41). “The shift toward the present,” Bennett notes “has not yet occasioned much self-reflection among historians” (33). She offers three culprits: a US national culture, which is very presentist, a historical profession, which has shifted away from the distant past, and medieval and ancient historians themselves, who have withdrawn or are withdrawing into their own discrete, interdisciplinary worlds of classics and medieval studies (34-35). Furthermore, Bennett argues “women’s history is particularly afflicted by this tilt toward the present” (37), for three particular reasons: loss of a pre-modern golden age, present mindedness of feminist scholarship outside the discipline of history, and the broadening of women’s history beyond the West (37). However, all too often the non-Western historian in a history department is a modernist as well. This situation provides a double service: it continues to elide the distant past, and implicitly promotes the idea that non-Western history is unchanging until some recent point in the past. After all most history departments still remember having a medieval historian, but in the presence of the historian of the Chinese Revolution, few historians bemoan the loss of their T’ang Chinese historian, because for the most part, there never was one.

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